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The River Saved My Life

Kelly Wiglesworth's story of how the river saved her, beginning her journey of falling in love with rafting at the age of 8 years old.

We believe in the power of Nature. When you connect with a natural force much bigger than yourself, it’s a special feeling. Kelly Wiglesworth, describes the journey to that feeling and how it led her to a sense of belonging.

By Kelly Wiglesworth

My childhood wasn’t exactly a happy one. In constant fear for my survival, I spent most of it sad and angry. I was bullied, beaten and constantly told I was nothing. The only relief was being in the water. Swimming pools, lakes, ponds, even bathtubs became my great escape. In the water I was free. The water everything washed away. In the water I was happy.

Kelly and friends raft down rapids, huge splash of water near the front of the boat. One of the key moments in how the river saved her.

One summer, when I was visiting family in North Carolina, my stepmom took us rafting on the Ocoee River. I had never been on a river before. It was Class IV. I was 8, but tall, so we lied and said I was 12. Our guide was a woman named Sarah. She knew I wasn’t 12 but since I was her best bow paddler, she let it slide. When others hit the floor during a rapid, I leaned out so far, sticking my head and paddle in the waves that Sarah would yell, “That’s great Kelly but let’s stay in the boat!”  

“I was 8, but tall, so we lied and said I was 12.”

We stopped along the banks to have lunch and the guides pointed out a hole that you could  jump into and body surf. I didn’t eat any lunch but spent the entire time surfing in the hole. Sarah had to jump in and drag me out. I remember watching her sitting in the back of the raft – suntanned skin, laughing, smiling, happy– and thinking, this is a job? People actually get paid to do this? I decided right then and there I was going to be a river guide. We went rafting every summer until my step mom took a bad swim on the Gauley. She never went rafting again. And neither did I for a long time.  

Life hadn’t gotten any easier in the years between rivers. I dropped out of school, left home at 14 and spent most of my time sad, angry and in fear for my survival. Bad decisions were made that seemed like good ones at the time, I tried hard at a lot of things – but was told I would never amount to anything.

Traveling from coast to coast, I couldn’t find my place.  

I moved back to Las Vegas and enrolled in UNLV. Every day between classes, I would pass the Outdoor Adventures office. There were flyers all over campus – Climbing in Red Rock Canyon, Backpacking in Havasupai, Rafting on the Kern River. I applied for a job almost every time I walked by, but they were never hiring. Packs, tents and ropes hung from the walls, music blasted in the background with smiling, suntanned people behind the front desk…  I wanted in on that

Kelly Wiglesworth smiling as she paddles down a river on a raft. Lush trees and river in the background.

It was a Friday in May. I had rolled my ankle during Dance Finals and hobbled into the office wearing a walking boot. It was the 17th time I applied. All the guides were busy packing for 2 weeks on the Kern River – leaving the next day. The director, who happened to be there, looked at me and said, “Girl, you must really want this job. Do you have any experience with whitewater rafting?” 

 “I’ve been rafting since I was 8.” I replied, casually leaving out the part that I had never actually guided a raft. Turns out I got the job, so I ditched the boot, wrapped my ankle and helped finish packing. 

I HAD NEVER GUIDED A RAFT BEFORE!!! 

This wasn’t just any group we were taking rafting. This was a group from the City of Las Vegas Adaptive Recreation Program. There was Debbie, a paraplegic, Charles, her blind boyfriend, and Clay and Aaron who were heavy on the autism spectrum and both with mild forms of cerebral palsy. This was my raft. This was also 1998 and an El Nino Year. I had no idea. It was a high water year. I had never seen the Kern. I had never boated West of Texas.  

Group of people rafting down a rapid with Kelly on the back steering. Everyone is smiling and having a good time.

But then something happened. I felt calm. I felt confident. Everything went quiet and somehow, I knew where I needed to go. Maneuvering us around rocks, I was able to point us straight in the holes and waves.

I was reading the water.  

After strapping a lawn chair to the middle thwart, Debbie was able to sit and hang on – luckily she was a rock climber and super strong in her upper body. I guide on the left so I put Charles – blind but also super strong and did whatever I told him to – as my right, front bow paddler and Clay and Aaron behind them. Having no idea what I was doing, I was so nervous and thought I would throw up when we pushed off into the current.  

We almost missed the take out but other than that, it was a successful run. No swimmers, no flips and my crew was stoked! I could hardly believe it and hardly contain myself in camp that night. I was totally sober, but buzzing like I never had before. After everyone had gone to sleep, I went down to the river by myself. It was a full moon and the water was coming up. As I sat on a rock, I listened to the sounds echoing off the canyon walls. I had never felt like this before. For the first time in a long time, I felt strong, invincible, important; I felt like somebody. I felt – happy.  

As I slipped my feet into the water, I said out loud… 

I am good at this…  

This is where I belong. 
Kelly Wiglesworth

Kelly Wiglesworth is a river guide, Mother to Rio, OG Survivor, producer, host and writer working to make the world a kinder, more understanding place.


For more stories like this, check out Benny Marr’s A Quality of Imagination.

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